August 17 2022

by Sarah Jacoby, Northwestern University

Students march in protest with a large banner sign, "Black Lives Matter"

There is no way to deeply consider religion—its history, definition, impact, danger, and promise—without also thinking about the construction of race. And yet, addressing race, racism, and white privilege in the religious studies classroom is fraught with challenges for faculty and students alike. These tensions have been exacerbated by the contemporary political climate in the United States, but ultimately stem from much deeper historical roots involving settler colonialism, the genocide and forced relocation of indigenous populations, and the enslavement of peoples of African descent. Addressing this maligned history in the United States as well as different iterations of it around the world, considering its contemporary consequences, and envisioning possible futures is part of the important work taking place in religious studies classrooms.

by Natalie Avalos, University of Colorado, Boulder

The Decolonial Classroom: Making Power Visible

by Brett J. Esaki, University of Arizona

Unlike my colleagues contributing to this Spotlight, my emphasis is less on what one could or should do and more on what one should not do. Specifically, I recommend that you do not teach a course on whiteness studies as an untenured professor, lecturer, or (god-forbid) as an adjunct. Likely, my colleagues might disagree, and I too hate to take this standpoint, but I ask that you at least consider my perspective as one end of the spectrum, where I advise excessive preparation for the potential negative consequences of teaching antiracism.

by Tiffany Puett, Institute for Diversity and Civic Life

While I teach religious studies in university classrooms, I also direct a nonprofit educational organization, the Institute for Diversity and Civic Life (IDCL), where we offer programs that build understanding of religious and cultural diversity. Many of our programs are geared towards adult learners and, more specifically, professionals who are navigating dynamics of diversity and difference in their organizations, companies, or communities.

by Richard Newton, University of Alabama

Recently I had a front row seat at my oldest son’s kindergarten graduation. Before receiving their diplomas, the children performed a montage of lessons they had learned during the school year—reading, writing, arithmetic…and world cultures. They conveyed the lessons with a cursory description of major holidays that took place within the semesters.

I don’t object to using holidays as a touchstone, but I surely failed at hiding my disappointment in the execution of the lesson. One child told us about the whimsy of Christmas—a winter holiday celebrated by most families present, even those not identifying as Christian. “Jewish people,” another child said, celebrate Hanukkah, and preceded to describe the function of a menorah which was depicted on a poster he had colored. Then a child approached the mic to explain how “Some people celebrate Kwanzaa,” all the while holding a different candleholder scribbled on a poster.

by Martha Smith Roberts, Denison University

Difficult topics are par for the course in the religious studies classroom. Our object of study, the myriad human behaviors categorized as religion, often spark impassioned debate and disagreement. However, the main pedagogical issues I face in the classroom tend to emerge from the absence, not the abundance, of debate and dialogue. This became even more palpable after the most recent presidential election, as students became reticent to speak about issues like race and religion or any of the contemporary political examples that I wanted to use for class discussion. Candidate Trump’s proposed Muslim Ban, and the later executive orders meant to instantiate it, are excellent examples of the issues we should be talking about in religious studies courses. However, my students had difficulty engaging with these issues, both in class discussions and in response papers.

by Rima Vesely-Flad, Warren Wilson College

Students at Warren Wilson College, where I have taught full-time over the past five years, have often told me in office hours that they do not feel “safe” discussing race in the classroom. They are eager and motivated to learn scholarly content and to analyze their experiences, but they are very reluctant to articulate their thoughts out loud. The college is politically liberal and predominantly white (about eight percent of the students are students of color, including international attendees); it is small (about 500 students) and rural. Most students live on the campus. Thus it is a place where students know each other and reputation matters a great deal. To “say the wrong thing” is to potentially be called out, or even labeled a racist.

Adams, Maurianne and Lee Anne Bell, et. al, eds. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, 3rd edition. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Adams, Maurianne, and Warren J. Blumenfeld, et. al, eds. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 3rd edition. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Baldwin, James. “On Being White and Other Lies (1984).” In Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to be White, edited by David Roediger, 177–180. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.

Coates, Ta-Nehesi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015.

Collins, Patricia Hill. On Intellectual Activism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013.

Dei, George S. Sefa, and Mairi McDermott, eds. The Politics of Anti-Racism Education: In Search of Strategies for Transformative Learning. New York: Springer, 2014.

by Jonathan Herman

Ursula Le Guin speaks at a podium in 2013. Photo by Jack Liu.

When the beloved author Ursula Le Guin died earlier this year at the age of 88, print and online tributes rightly celebrated her legacy of wonderful fantasy and science-fiction literature, as well as her place as a feminist literary icon, her facility with both trenchant satire and gentle children’s fables, her incisive social and political commentary, her generous support for aspiring young authors, and her abundant personal magnetism. But they generally made little mention of much having to do with religion, beyond noting how Le Guin had proudly received the “Emperor Has No Clothes Award” from the Freedom from Religion Foundation a decade ago. “Let the tailors of the garments of God sit in their tailor shops and stitch away,” she declared at the award ceremony, “but let them stay there in their temples, out of government, out of the schools.”

Susan E. Hill, Chair, AAR Academic Relations Committee

people sitting in a circle, some with pens and notebooks in their laps

The Academic Relations Committee (ARC) promotes attention to and develops resources for enhancing members’ professional development and the institutional forms in which the study of religion takes place. This year, the ARC is sponsoring or cosponsoring a number of sessions at the Annual Meeting, all under the theme, “The Current State of Religious Studies.” There are sessions on how religious studies departments can help prepare future K-12 educators to teach religion, how we can help our students leverage their religious studies majors in their careers after college, and how we can best support our contingent faculty. In addition, sessions explore the how religious studies departments are positioned in institutions of higher education, and the role of philanthropy in creating positions in religious studies departments. Please join us!